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Tag Archives: cambridge analytica

Here’s a provocative suggestion for political activists/campaigners:

Let’s find out what pushes a person’s buttons and lie that voting our way will deliver for them.”

Yes, that’s outrageous in a democracy. However, it’s happened and there are now very late attempts to control information and social media but there’s far more to it.

Dominic Cummings who is credited with winning the Brexit referendum has been very open about how it was done. Simply stated, Cummings and company had access to personal data gathered without permission from citizens’ on-line activity. This enabled them to identify gullible people and their concerns. These people were then targeted and told that a vote for Brexit would address their concerns. Though a thinking person might find it hard to believe, the example of the polar bears is true: having identified concerns over polar bears, the lie was told that the bears’ future would be better in the event of Brexit.

When this campaigning methodology became the subject of public controversy, concern was directed in a very peculiar direction. There was of course concern over extreme lies but the main concern was over surreptitious gathering of information about people on-line and its availability to rich political campaigners. Little or no concern was raised over the basic campaigning tactic of telling people that their “issue” could or would be addressed by voting in a certain way.

Here’s a question: if the issue were nothing as large or as bizarre as the likes of polar bears and the personal data had been obtained legitimately, would it be acceptable to direct lies at people, telling them that their issue would be resolved by voting in a particular way? Well, regardless of the answer, it is commonplace during election campaigns to exploit local knowledge (data) about the concerns of gullible voters. A typical case might be a housing estate in which residents oppose a planning application. Aware of this, an enterprising candidate might exploit the data by aiming a message at gullible voters: a very local leaflet, telling voters that a vote for the candidate would take care of their issue. The point is that data are being used specifically to target gullible voters and they are being told a lie. The difference between this and Cummings/Cambridge Analytica is scale and the use of legally obtained data.

Directing large numbers of very local messages would be expensive. However, there is a less costly and familiar approach, and taking a look at election leaflets is revealing. It is routine to find them directed at a town or suburb. Data is collected about local “issues” and leaflets are prepared suggesting to gullible people that their vote can deliver a favourable outcome.

Let’s not be deluded that Dominic Cummings is a great campaign innovator or a uniquely bad enemy of democracy. He’s a cynic who based his methods on old, well-worn, tried and tested, anti-democratic campaigning. His opponents don’t condemn his methods; they are worried about unfair advantage (his data are not cheap) and surreptitious gathering of data.

The dreadful reality is that there’s a large number of gullible citizens waiting to be told that their vote offers the chance of deliverance from what ails or irks them. However, there are other quite different citizens who want to be treated with respect, who can deal with complexity, who want truth and reason. When there is talk of representation in parliament, the latter are seldom if ever considered. In practice it’s as if they don’t exist.

Dominic Cummings isn’t running Britain and those who trot that out are missing a very real threat. Dominic Cummings is an advisor to the UK Prime Minister. His advice is taken because it is based on a plausible, compelling argument that crucially is located in the really existing present and in that respect it doesn’t face a rival.

What little opposition it faces is of three equally irrelevant types. Firstly, some are based in the vanished industrial world of the mid 20th century. Secondly, there is the tragi-comical pseudo-opposition, sharing the same “people power” sloganeering that energises the Cummings argument. Thirdly, there are the ad hominem attempts to portray Cummings as mad.

The first and second – sad to say – are leftist and their proponents would be upset by any suggestion that they support Cummings but that’s not the suggestion. It’s different and it’s more than a suggestion; the reality is that they inadvertently strengthen the Cummings argument. Firstly, the left is too often strangely unaware that thinking people find it easy to spot an argument made nonsense by reliance on conditions long gone – in this case the conditions of mid 20th century industrial capitalism – and whatever problems thinking people might have with Cummings, it’s clear that at least he’s talking about the world as it is today.

Secondly, Cummings advice to the UK Prime Minister is to try for a general election in which the P.M. would campaign for the people against the politicians. Familiar? Of course it is. Sections of the left have been positing the people against variously the government, the state, the political class, the establishment for years with no regard to whether “the people” were calling for left or right movement. They were simply “the people” and anti-establishment; they were to be followed until they could be led. Cummings, however, knows the difference between left and right and where the people are headed. He can thank those on the left who refuse to think for helping to mobilise his people.

Thirdly, ad hominem attacks are easy but pointless. Reading Cummings blogs etc. will reveal a man who reveres strong leaders, authority, manliness and Bismarck.* That’s certainly eccentric, some might view it as crazy and he’s been described as a sociopath. That’s all irrelevant because it leaves his argument and analysis of society untouched. Should those who despise the man achieve his downfall, nothing more will change. The views, analysis, argument will remain unchallenged by anything both plausible and relevant to today – and “the people” will remain mobilised against the establishment.

Cummings is astute but it would be silly to assume that he is unique. There are certainly others as aware. He knows a lot but three things are uppermost in his mind and make anti-democratic voting possible.

i) The flaw at the heart of mass democracy

A very old fear among democrats is that as the franchise extended and extended, greater numbers of passive, easily swayed voters became available to demagogues. This cannot threaten democracy as long as their numbers are relatively small or they are beyond the communicative reach of the demagogue.

ii) The antagonised passive citizen

With universal franchise many passive citizens declined all participation while some others voted for a variety of reasons other than deliberation and judgement but few were hostile to the system itself – the establishment. That has changed. Cummings is one who has watched the polls for years. He knows populism and the nature of it. He understands the current meaning of “anti-establishment” and the numbers involved.

iii) The demagogue’s medium

It is no longer possible for democrats to ignore the passive, inactive, disaffected citizen because now they are many and because now they can be reached and mobilised. Cummings proved this with his Brexit referendum campaign. Relying on data mined from social media he then used social media to deliver approaching-bespoke messages to citizens who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to politics or who seldom voted or who were otherwise disaffected. He knew the kind of message that would get their attention and he knew how to reel them in.

Essentially Cummings knows that he is dealing with a world changed and that he is threatening democracy which he despises. He concentrates on the passive, disaffected citizen. Communication is not directed at those who are concerned with truth and argument; they are the establishment and irrelevant. There is no need to confuse matters by addressing them. They are no longer essential to winning a majority; they are not needed.

The problem is that few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, care to acknowledge that what Cummings describes is indeed the new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a plausible counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

There is a degree of urgency in all this because while opponents of the Cummings perspective ignore the thoughtful citizen on whom democracy relies, his passive citizens may be inching towards a majority.

* https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dominic-cummings-boris-johnson-otto-von-bismarck-brexit-a9045941.html?fbclid=IwAR3fTSMLgx-gquc7QWyT4OGSf_NTcZ2wVNQD-kYOCXNbJRttInzX5qKYlmE